Despite the stupor-inducing heat and humidity and the region's reputation for long-windedness, a handful of Southern comic masterpieces like Charles Portis's The Dog of the South, Nancy Lemann's Lives of the Saints or Sportsman's Paradise, James Wilcox's Modern Baptists, or Susan Orlean's nonfiction The Orchid Thief are written with a lightning brevity so that every syllable opens fresh windows. At times in his first novel God Says No, James Hannaham approaches their mastery. Look at his description, from a child's view, of an older man:
"When Dave smiled, he showed off all his teeth, top and bottom, and he made me guess which one wasn't real. I chose the wrong one. He gave us a lot of advice about how to get divorced, what fishing poles to buy, and how to cheat Breathalyzers and polygraphs."
Or his narrator's mother, who always expected her son to marry a nice black girl, meeting his bride for the first time at their wedding:
Later, in a private moment by the buffet table, my mother leaned toward me, staring at Annie as she fixed my eighty-six year old uncle's boutonniere. "So one of her parents black and the other Chinese?" she asked, a pin between her teeth. Annie's skin had grown tan from our trips to the beach. Timidly, I shook my head.
"What is she?"
"She's from Samoa."
"Samoa. It's in the South Pacific."
"And she not mixed at all? I swear that girl is mixed. You mean to tell me with that flat nose--"
"No, Mama, there's no black."
"Samoa," my mother repeated, the way she might have if I'd brought home a girl from another galaxy. "That's a new one."
Hannaham captures many, many such crystalline moments in telling the story of an overweight young fundamentalist, Gary Gray, whose deep religious beliefs are at odds with his desire for sex with men in Orlando in the 1980s. From an abusive upbringing to a zealous Christian college to an ex-gay conversion center, Gary is forever chafing against his institutional identities. In fact, he tries to erase himself altogether, through two quick, botched suicide attempts and the book's long middle section in which he abandons his wife, daughter, and job to move to Atlanta under the alias August Valentine.
The readers who are eager for Gary to let go of his continued insistence that gay sex is wrong (while frequently cruising restrooms for instant anonymous hookups) and those anticipating Hannaham's insights on broader gay culture with characters enjoying a freer, more open life, will be frustrated. When the book seems headed there, after a few months living with man, an abrupt turn sends Gary to an ex-gay conversion therapy compound. It's a mild place and, like all important healing, Gary's progress against his shame is slow. In the novel's final pages he comes closer to being at peace with himself. His journey is important, it's true, and it's literature.